Long but good: Hammill on encryption

Russell E. Whitaker whitakerNeternity.demon.co.uk.demon.co.uk
Mon Sep 21 06:24:27 PDT 1992

The following is the text of a *very* interesting speech
given in 1987 by mathematician Chuck Hammill.  The Soviet
Union is mentioned; while this may be a little dated, there's
always China... and Cuba... and a few other places...



  Given at the Future of Freedom Conference, November 1987
     You   know,   technology--and   particularly   computer
technology--has often gotten a bad rap in  Libertarian  cir-
cles.  We tend to think of Orwell's 1984, or Terry Gilliam's
Brazil,  or  the  proximity  detectors keeping East Berlin's
slave/citizens on their own side of the border, or  the  so-
phisticated  bugging  devices  Nixon used to harass those on
his "enemies list."  Or, we recognize that for the price  of
a  ticket  on  the Concorde we can fly at twice the speed of
sound, but only if we first walk thru a magnetometer run  by
a  government  policeman, and permit him to paw thru our be-
longings if it beeps.
     But I think that mind-set is a mistake.   Before  there
were cattle prods, governments tortured their prisoners with
clubs  and  rubber  hoses.    Before  there  were lasers for
eavesdropping, governments used binoculars and  lip-readers.
Though  government certainly uses technology to oppress, the
evil lies not in the tools but in the wielder of the tools.
     In fact, technology represents one of the most  promis-
ing  avenues  available  for  re-capturing our freedoms from
those who have stolen them.  By its very nature,  it  favors
the  bright  (who can put it to use) over the dull (who can-
not).  It favors the adaptable (who are  quick  to  see  the
merit  of  the  new(  over  the sluggish (who cling to time-
tested ways).  And what two better words are  there  to  de-
scribe government bureaucracy than "dull" and "sluggish"?
     One  of  the  clearest,  classic triumphs of technology
over tyranny I see is  the  invention  of  the  man-portable
crossbow.   With it, an untrained peasant could now reliably
and lethally engage a target out to  fifty  meters--even  if
that  target  were  a mounted, chain-mailed knight.  (Unlike
the longbow, which, admittedly was more powerful, and  could
get  off  more shots per unit time, the crossbow required no
formal training to utilize.   Whereas the  longbow  required
elaborate  visual,  tactile  and kinesthetic coordination to
achieve any degree of accuracy, the wielder  of  a  crossbow
could simply put the weapon to his shoulder, sight along the
arrow  itself, and be reasonably assured of hitting his tar-
     Moreover, since just about  the  only  mounted  knights
likely  to  visit  your  average peasant would be government
soldiers and tax collectors, the utility of the  device  was
plain:    With it, the common rabble could defend themselves
not only against one another, but against their governmental
masters.   It was the  medieval  equivalent  of  the  armor-
piercing  bullet,  and, consequently, kings and priests (the
medieval equivalent of a  Bureau  of  Alcohol,  Tobacco  and
Crossbows)  threatened  death  and  excommunication, respec-
tively, for its unlawful possession.
     Looking at later developments, we  see  how  technology
like  the  firearm--particularly the repeating rifle and the
handgun, later followed by the Gatling gun and more advanced
machine guns--radically altered the balance of interpersonal
and inter-group power.  Not without reason was the Colt  .45
called "the equalizer."  A frail dance-hall hostess with one
in  her  possession  was  now  fully able to protect herself
against the brawniest roughneck in any saloon.    Advertise-
ments  for  the period also reflect the merchandising of the
repeating cartridge  rifle  by  declaring  that  "a  man  on
horseback,  armed with one of these rifles, simply cannot be
captured."  And, as long as his captors  were  relying  upon
flintlocks  or  single-shot rifles, the quote is doubtless a
true one.
     Updating now to  the  present,  the  public-key  cipher
(with  a  personal  computer to run it) represents an equiv-
alent quantum leap--in a defensive weapon.    Not  only  can
such  a technique be used to protect sensitive data in one's
own possession, but it can also permit two strangers to  ex-
change   information   over   an   insecure   communications
channel--a  wiretapped   phone   line,   for   example,   or
skywriting, for that matter)--without ever having previously
met  to  exchange cipher keys.   With a thousand-dollar com-
puter, you can create a cipher that  a  multi-megabuck  CRAY
X-MP  can't  crack in a year.  Within a few years, it should
be economically feasible to similarly encrypt voice communi-
cations; soon after that, full-color digitized video images.
Technology will not only have made wiretapping obsolete,  it
will  have  totally demolished government's control over in-
formation transfer.
     I'd like to take just a moment to sketch the  mathemat-
ics  which makes this principle possible.  This algorithm is
called the RSA algorithm, after Rivest, Shamir, and  Adleman
who  jointly created it.  Its security derives from the fact
that, if a very large number is  the  product  of  two  very
large  primes,  then it is extremely difficult to obtain the
two prime factors from analysis  of  their  product.    "Ex-
tremely"  in  the  sense that if primes  p  and  q  have 100
digits apiece, then their 200-digit product cannot  in  gen-
eral be factored in less than 100 years by the most powerful
computer now in existence.
     The  "public" part of the key consists of (1) the prod-
uct  pq  of the two large primes p and q, and (2)  one  fac-
tor,  call it  x  , of the product  xy  where  xy = {(p-1) *
(q-1) + 1}.  The "private" part of the key consists  of  the
other factor  y.
     Each  block of the text to be encrypted is first turned
into an integer--either by using ASCII,  or  even  a  simple
A=01,  B=02,  C=03, ... , Z=26 representation.  This integer
is then raised to the power  x (modulo pq) and the resulting
integer is then sent as the encrypted message.  The receiver
decrypts by taking this integer to the  (secret)  power    y
(modulo  pq).  It can be shown that this process will always
yield the original number started with.
     What makes this a groundbreaking development,  and  why
it  is  called  "public-key"  cryptography,"  is  that I can
openly publish the product  pq and the number   x   ,  while
keeping  secret  the number  y  --so that anyone can send me
an encrypted message, namely
                     a    (mod pq)  ,
but only I can recover the original message  a  , by  taking
what  they  send, raising it to the power  y  and taking the
result (mod pq).  The risky step (meeting to exchange cipher
keys) has been eliminated.  So people who may not even trust
each other enough to want to meet, may  still  reliably  ex-
change  encrypted  messages--each  party having selected and
disseminated his own  pq  and his  x  ,   while  maintaining
the secrecy of his own  y.
     Another benefit of this scheme is the notion of a "dig-
ital signature," to enable one to authenticate the source of
a given message.  Normally, if I want to send you a message,
I raise my plaintext  a  to your x and take the result  (mod
your pq)  and send that.
    However,  if in my message, I take the plaintext  a and
raise it to my (secret) power  y  , take the result  (mod my
pq), then raise that result to your x   (mod  your  pq)  and
send this, then even after you have normally "decrypted" the
message,  it  will still look like garbage.  However, if you
then raise it to my public power x   , and take  the  result
(mod  my public pq  ), so you will not only recover the ori-
ginal plaintext message, but you will know that no one but I
could have sent it to you (since no one else knows my secret
     And these are the very concerns by the way that are to-
day tormenting the Soviet Union about the whole question  of
personal  computers.    On the one hand, they recognize that
American schoolchildren are right now growing up  with  com-
puters  as commonplace as sliderules used to be--more so, in
fact, because there are things computers can do  which  will
interest  (and instruct) 3- and 4-year-olds.  And it is pre-
cisely these students who one generation hence will be going
head-to-head against their Soviet  counterparts.    For  the
Soviets  to  hold  back might be a suicidal as continuing to
teach swordsmanship  while  your  adversaries  are  learning
ballistics.    On  the  other hand, whatever else a personal
computer may be, it is also an exquisitely efficient copying
machine--a floppy disk will hold upwards of 50,000 words  of
text,  and  can  be  copied in a couple of minutes.  If this
weren't threatening enough, the computer that  performs  the
copy  can also encrypt the data in a fashion that is all but
unbreakable.  Remember that in Soviet society  publicly  ac-
cessible  Xerox  machines are unknown.   (The relatively few
copying machines in existence  are  controlled  more  inten-
sively than machine guns are in the United States.)
     Now  the  "conservative" position is that we should not
sell these computers to the Soviets, because they could  use
them  in weapons systems.  The "liberal" position is that we
should sell them, in  the  interests  of  mutual  trade  and
cooperation--and  anyway,  if  we don't make the sale, there
will certainly be some other nation willing to.
     For my part, I'm ready to suggest that the  Libertarian
position should be to give them to the Soviets for free, and
if  necessary, make them take them . . . and if that doesn't
work load up an SR-71  Blackbird  and  air  drop  them  over
Moscow in the middle of the night.  Paid for by private sub-
scription, of course, not taxation . . . I confess that this
is not a position that has gained much support among members
of  the conventional left-right political spectrum, but, af-
ter all, in the words of one of Illuminatus's characters, we
are political non-Euclideans:   The shortest distance  to  a
particular  goal may not look anything like what most people
would consider a "straight line."    Taking  a  long  enough
world-view,  it is arguable that breaking the Soviet govern-
ment monopoly on information transfer could better  lead  to
the enfeeblement and, indeed, to the ultimate dissolution of
the Soviet empire than would the production of another dozen
missiles aimed at Moscow.
     But  there's  the rub:  A "long enough" world view does
suggest that the evil, the oppressive, the coercive and  the
simply  stupid  will "get what they deserve," but what's not
immediately clear is how the rest of  us  can  escape  being
killed, enslaved, or pauperized in the process.
    When  the  liberals and other collectivists began to at-
tack freedom, they possessed a reasonably  stable,  healthy,
functioning economy, and almost unlimited time to proceed to
hamstring   and   dismantle  it.    A  policy  of  political
gradualism was at least  conceivable.    But  now,  we  have
patchwork  crazy-quilt  economy held together by baling wire
and spit.  The state not only taxes us to  "feed  the  poor"
while also inducing farmers to slaughter milk cows and drive
up food prices--it then simultaneously turns around and sub-
sidizes research into agricultural chemicals designed to in-
crease  yields of milk from the cows left alive.  Or witness
the fact that a decline in the price of oil is considered as
potentially frightening as a comparable increase a few years
ago.  When the price went up,  we  were  told,  the  economy
risked  collapse for for want of energy.  The price increase
was called the "moral equivalent of war" and the Feds  swung
into  action.    For the first time in American history, the
speed at which you drive your car to work in the morning be-
came an issue of Federal concern.   Now, when the  price  of
oil  drops, again we risk problems, this time because Ameri-
can oil companies and Third World  basket-case  nations  who
sell  oil  may  not  be  able to ever pay their debts to our
grossly over-extended banks.  The suggested panacea is  that
government  should now re-raise the oil prices that OPEC has
lowered, via a new oil tax.  Since the government is seeking
to raise oil prices to about the same extent  as  OPEC  did,
what  can we call this except the "moral equivalent of civil
war--the government against its own people?"
     And, classically, in international trade, can you imag-
ine any entity in the world except  a  government  going  to
court  claiming  that  a  vendor  was  selling  it goods too
cheaply and demanding not only that that naughty  vendor  be
compelled by the court to raise its prices, but also that it
be punished for the act of lowering them in the first place?
     So  while the statists could afford to take a couple of
hundred years to trash our  economy  and  our  liberties--we
certainly  cannot  count  on  having an equivalent period of
stability in which to reclaim them.   I contend  that  there
exists  almost  a  "black  hole"  effect in the evolution of
nation-states just as in the evolution of stars.  Once free-
dom contracts beyond a certain  minimum  extent,  the  state
warps  the fabric of the political continuum about itself to
the degree that subsequent re-emergence of  freedom  becomes
all but impossible.  A good illustration of this can be seen
in the area of so-called "welfare" payments.  When those who
sup  at the public trough outnumber (and thus outvote) those
whose taxes must replenish the trough,  then  what  possible
choice has a democracy but to perpetuate and expand the tak-
ing  from  the few for the unearned benefit of the many?  Go
down to the nearest "welfare" office, find just  two  people
on  the dole . . . and recognize that between them they form
a voting bloc that can forever outvote you on  the  question
of who owns your life--and the fruits of your life's labor.
     So essentially those who love liberty need an "edge" of
some  sort  if  we're ultimately going to prevail.  We obvi-
ously  can't  use  the  altruists'  "other-directedness"  of
"work,  slave, suffer, sacrifice, so that next generation of
a billion random strangers can  live  in  a  better  world."
Recognize  that, however immoral such an appeal might be, it
is nonetheless an extremely powerful one in today's culture.
If you can convince  people  to  work  energetically  for  a
"cause," caring only enough for their personal welfare so as
to  remain  alive  enough  and  healthy  enough  to continue
working--then you have a truly massive reservoir  of  energy
to draw from.  Equally clearly, this is just the sort of ap-
peal which tautologically cannot be utilized for egoistic or
libertarian goals.  If I were to stand up before you tonight
and say something like, "Listen, follow me as I enunciate my
noble "cause," contribute your money to support the "cause,"
give  up  your  free  time  to  work for the "cause," strive
selflessly to bring it about, and then (after you  and  your
children are dead) maybe your children's children will actu-
ally  live under egoism"--you'd all think I'd gone mad.  And
of course you'd be right.  Because the point I'm  trying  to
make is that libertarianism and/or egoism will be spread if,
when, and as, individual libertarians and/or egoists find it
profitable and/or enjoyable to do so.    And  probably  only
     While I certainly do not disparage the concept of poli-
tical  action, I don't believe that it is the only, nor even
necessarily the most cost-effective path  toward  increasing
freedom  in  our time.  Consider that, for a fraction of the
investment in time, money and effort I might expend in  try-
ing  to  convince  the  state to abolish wiretapping and all
forms of censorship--I can teach every libertarian who's in-
terested  how  to   use   cryptography   to   abolish   them
     There  is  a  maxim--a proverb--generally attributed to
the Eskimoes, which very likely most Libertarians  have  al-
ready  heard.    And while you likely would not quarrel with
the saying, you might well feel that you've heard  it  often
enough already, and that it has nothing further to teach us,
and moreover, that maybe you're even tired of hearing it.  I
shall therefore repeat it now:
     If you give a man a fish, the saying runs, you feed him
for a day.  But if you teach a man how to fish, you feed him
for a lifetime.
     Your exposure to the quote was probably in some sort of
a  "workfare"  vs.  "welfare"  context;  namely, that if you
genuinely wish to help someone in need, you should teach him
how to earn his sustenance, not simply how to  beg  for  it.
And of course this is true, if only because the next time he
is hungry, there might not be anybody around willing or even
able to give him a fish, whereas with the information on how
to fish, he is completely self sufficient.
     But  I  submit  that this exhausts only the first order
content of the quote, and if there were nothing  further  to
glean  from  it,  I would have wasted your time by citing it
again.  After all, it seems to have almost a crypto-altruist
slant, as though to imply that we should structure  our  ac-
tivities  so  as  to  maximize  the  benefits to such hungry
beggars as we may encounter.
     But consider:
     Suppose this Eskimo doesn't know how to  fish,  but  he
does  know  how  to hunt walruses.   You, on the other hand,
have often gone hungry while traveling thru  walrus  country
because  you  had  no idea how to catch the damn things, and
they ate most of the fish you could catch.  And now  suppose
the  two  of  you  decide to exchange information, bartering
fishing knowledge for hunting knowledge.   Well,  the  first
thing  to  observe  is  that  a  transaction  of  this  type
categorically and unambiguously refutes the Marxist  premise
that  every  trade  must  have a "winner" and a "loser;" the
idea that if one person gains, it must necessarily be at the
"expense" of another person who loses.  Clearly, under  this
scenario, such is not the case.  Each party has gained some-
thing  he  did  not have before, and neither has been dimin-
ished in any way.  When it comes to exchange of  information
(rather  than material objects) life is no longer a zero-sum
game.  This is an extremely powerful notion.   The  "law  of
diminishing   returns,"   the  "first  and  second  laws  of
thermodynamics"--all those "laws" which constrain our possi-
bilities in other contexts--no longer bind us!   Now  that's
     Or  consider  another possibility:  Suppose this hungry
Eskimo never learned  to  fish  because  the  ruler  of  his
nation-state    had  decreed fishing illegal.   Because fish
contain dangerous tiny bones, and sometimes sharp spines, he
tells us, the state has decreed that their  consumption--and
even  their  possession--are  too  hazardous to the people's
health to be permitted . . . even by knowledgeable,  willing
adults.   Perhaps it is because citizens' bodies are thought
to be government property, and therefore it is the  function
of the state to punish those who improperly care for govern-
ment  property.    Or perhaps it is because the state gener-
ously extends to competent adults the "benefits" it provides
to children and to the mentally ill:  namely,  a  full-time,
all-pervasive supervisory conservatorship--so that they need
not  trouble  themselves  with making choices about behavior
thought physically risky or morally "naughty."  But, in  any
case,  you  stare stupefied, while your Eskimo informant re-
lates how this law is taken so seriously that  a  friend  of
his was recently imprisoned for years for the crime of "pos-
session of nine ounces of trout with intent to distribute."
     Now  you  may  conclude  that  a society so grotesquely
oppressive as to enforce a law of this  type  is  simply  an
affront to the dignity of all human beings.  You may go far-
ther  and  decide to commit some portion of your discretion-
ary, recreational time specifically to the task of thwarting
this tyrant's goal.  (Your rationale may be "altruistic"  in
the   sense   of  wanting  to  liberate  the  oppressed,  or
"egoistic" in the sense of  proving  you  can  outsmart  the
oppressor--or  very likely some combination of these or per-
haps even other motives.)
     But, since you have zero desire to become a  martyr  to
your "cause," you're not about to mount a military campaign,
or  even try to run a boatload of fish through the blockade.
However, it is here that technology--and in  particular  in-
formation technology--can multiply your efficacy literally a
hundredfold.    I say "literally," because for a fraction of
the effort (and virtually none of  the  risk)  attendant  to
smuggling in a hundred fish, you can quite readily produce a
hundred  Xerox copies of fishing instructions.  (If the tar-
geted government, like present-day America, at least permits
open  discussion  of  topics  whose  implementation  is  re-
stricted,  then that should suffice.  But, if the government
attempts to suppress the flow of information as  well,  then
you will have to take a little more effort and perhaps write
your  fishing manual on a floppy disk encrypted according to
your mythical Eskimo's public-key parameters.  But as far as
increasing real-world access to fish you have  made  genuine
nonzero  headway--which  may  continue to snowball as others
re-disseminate the information you have provided.   And  you
have not had to waste any of your time trying to convert id-
eological  adversaries, or even trying to win over the unde-
cided.  Recall Harry Browne's dictum  from  "Freedom  in  an
Unfree World" that the success of any endeavor is in general
inversely proportional to the number of people whose persua-
sion is necessary to its fulfilment.
     If  you  look  at  history, you cannot deny that it has
been dramatically shaped by men with names like  Washington,
Lincoln,  .  .  .  Nixon  .  . . Marcos . . . Duvalier . . .
Khadaffi . . .  and their ilk.  But it has also been  shaped
by  people with names like Edison, Curie, Marconi, Tesla and
Wozniak.  And this latter shaping has been at least as  per-
vasive, and not nearly so bloody.
     And  that's  where  I'm  trying  to  take The LiberTech
Project.  Rather than beseeching the state to please not en-
slave, plunder or constrain us, I propose a libertarian net-
work spreading  the  technologies  by  which  we  may  seize
freedom for ourselves.
     But here we must be a bit careful.  While it is not (at
present)  illegal  to  encrypt  information  when government
wants to spy on you, there is no guarantee of what  the  fu-
ture  may hold.  There have been bills introduced, for exam-
ple, which would have made it a crime  to  wear  body  armor
when government wants to shoot you.  That is, if you were to
commit certain crimes while wearing a Kevlar vest, then that
fact  would  constitute a separate federal crime of its own.
This law to my knowledge has not passed . . . yet . . .  but
it does indicate how government thinks.
     Other  technological  applications,  however, do indeed
pose legal risks.  We recognize, for  example,  that  anyone
who  helped a pre-Civil War slave escape on the "underground
railroad" was making a clearly illegal use of technology--as
the sovereign government of the United States of America  at
that time found the buying and selling of human beings quite
as  acceptable  as  the buying and selling of cattle.  Simi-
larly, during Prohibition, anyone who used  his  bathtub  to
ferment  yeast and sugar into the illegal psychoactive drug,
alcohol--the controlled substance, wine--was using  technol-
ogy  in a way that could get him shot dead by federal agents
for his "crime"--unfortunately not to be  restored  to  life
when  Congress  reversed itself and re-permitted use of this
     So . . . to quote a former President,  un-indicted  co-
conspirator  and pardoned felon . . . "Let me make one thing
perfectly clear:"  The LiberTech Project does not  advocate,
participate  in, or conspire in the violation of any law--no
matter how oppressive,  unconstitutional  or  simply  stupid
such  law may be.  It does engage in description (for educa-
tional and informational  purposes  only)  of  technological
processes,  and some of these processes (like flying a plane
or manufacturing a firearm) may well require appropriate li-
censing to perform legally.    Fortunately,  no  license  is
needed  for  the  distribution or receipt of information it-
     So, the next time you look at the political  scene  and
despair,  thinking,  "Well,  if 51% of the nation and 51% of
this State, and 51% of this city have  to  turn  Libertarian
before  I'll  be  free,  then  somebody might as well cut my
goddamn throat now, and put me out of my  misery"--recognize
that  such  is not the case.  There exist ways to make your-
self free.
     If you wish to explore such techniques via the Project,
you are welcome to give me your name and address--or a  fake
name  and  mail  drop, for that matter--and you'll go on the
mailing list for my erratically-published newsletter.    Any
friends  or acquaintances whom you think would be interested
are welcome as well.  I'm not even asking for stamped  self-
addressed envelopes, since my printer can handle mailing la-
bels and actual postage costs are down in the noise compared
with  the  other  efforts  in getting an issue out.   If you
should have an idea to share, or even a  useful  product  to
plug,  I'll be glad to have you write it up for publication.
Even if you want to be the proverbial "free rider" and  just
benefit  from  what others contribute--you're still welcome:
Everything will be public domain; feel free to  copy  it  or
give it away (or sell it, for that matter, 'cause if you can
get  money  for  it while I'm taking full-page ads trying to
give it away, you're certainly entitled to  your  capitalist
profit . . .)  Anyway, every application of these principles
should make the world just a little freer, and I'm certainly
willing to underwrite that, at least for the forseeable  fu-
     I  will leave you with one final thought:  If you don't
learn how to beat your plowshares into  swords  before  they
outlaw  swords,  then you sure as HELL ought to learn before
they outlaw plowshares too.
                                       --Chuck Hammill
                                 THE LIBERTECH PROJECT
                                 3194 Queensbury Drive
                               Los Angeles, California

[The above LiberTech address was updated June 1992, with the
 permission of Chuck Hammill, by:

Russell Earl Whitaker                   whitaker at eternity.demon.co.uk
Communications Editor                       71750.2413 at compuserve.com
EXTROPY: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought         AMIX: RWHITAKER
Board member, Extropy Institute (ExI)
[.sig revised 11 September 1992    ///    Send mail to eternity node]
Version: 2.0


That's it from here.

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